Where inventiveness starts

<p>To find young inventors, one of this year's inductees to the National Inventors Hall of Fame suggested asking kids what they would do if a spaceship dropped a box on Earth containing a cure for disease. Many kids will take the box to an adult, said retired engineer Gary Starkweather. Look for the ones who would take the box apart, he said.</p> <p>The inventors of nuclear fission, GPS, industrial robots and board games are among the 460 current members of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Va. Staffers add new names to the hall's tall red, white and blue panels every year. They <a href="http://www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/1_3_2_submit.asp">accept nominations</a> year-round and look for people they think have changed society and improved people's quality of life, <a href="http://www.uspto.gov/news/pr/2012/12-15.jsp">according to the patent office</a>. The office announced this year's inductees in March and will hold a ceremony May 2 in the historical patent office in Washington, D.C.</p> <p>Curious about where invention and creativity start, InnovationNewsDaily called all the inductees and asked them what their first invention was. Straw rockets, a failed laser and a fruit juice clarifying agent made from mold were among their answers. Only one, Barbara Liskov, cited the invention she is being honored for, though most were working on something related before they made their breakthrough. A couple of the first inventions are outdated now, but that doesn't mean there's a set shelf life for inventions. The inventions being honored are usually only a few years newer.</p> <p>All the inventors kept on filing patents and inventing new things throughout their careers. Starkweather said, "You're never satisfied with what exists."</p>

Akira Endo

<p>Akira Endo's grandfather used to take him mushroom-hunting in the snowy mountain village in Japan where he grew up. From then on, mushrooms, fungi and mold were the basis of Endo's greatest inventions.</p> <p>He thinks of his first invention as something he discovered as a fresh college graduate and new employee of Sankyo Co. in Tokyo, he wrote to InnovationNewsDaily in an email. It was 1957, and Sankyo put him in charge of finding a microbe that makes large quantities of the natural chemical pectinase, which digests the fruit chemical pectin. Pectin makes wines and juices cloudy, and Sankyo wanted to sell a pectinase that turns those cloudy juices clear. Endo thought that molds that grow on fruits and mushrooms probably make pectinase, to help them digest the fruit. He analyzed more than 200 molds before discovering a pectinase-producing grape mold.</p> <p>Pleased, Sankyo executives began selling Endo's pectinase and sent him to the U.S. to study, which Endo called "a dream I held ever since I was a child." The Sankyo support helped him go to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, where he began the cholesterol studies that would eventually lead him to develop the first statin, from a mold. He's being honored now for his statin work.</p>

Barbara Liskov

<p>Barbara Liskov, who is entering the National Inventors Hall of Fame for her innovations in computer programming languages, came up with the first of those soon after becoming a member of MIT's computer science faculty in 1972. Software programmers need to divide their code into smaller pieces called modules that can do some their own independent reasoning, she explained. Just a year after the microprocessor was invented, she thought of and tested a way to modularize software code. "This was sort of a big moment when you come up with an invention which is going to be a game-changer," she told InnovationNewsDaily.</p> <p>Her method, called data abstraction, began showing up in major programming languages in the 1990s. Her inventions now appear in almost all modern programming languages, <a href="http://www.uspto.gov/news/pr/2012/12-15.jsp">according to the U.S. patent office</a>. Her work makes programs reliable, secure and easy to use, the office wrote.</p> <p>She's stayed at MIT ever since and is now working on ensuring cloud storage is safe and reliable, she said.</p>

C. Kumar N. Patel

<p>Kumar Patel's first invention was soon eclipsed by better methods. In August 1962, he filed a patent for a laser mode selector that turned a laser beam with many wavelengths of light into a beam with just one wavelength. Single-wavelength lasers are <a href="C:\Users\fdiep\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\Temporary Internet Files\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\Temporary Internet Files\Content.Outlook\71ITH71B\rp-photonics.com\singe_frequency_lasers.html">still used today</a> in laser scans and fiber optics communications, but Patel's method of selecting one frequency didn't take off because others' inventions worked better. "The technique I got the patent for was not as easy to use as some other techniques invented later," Patel told InnovationNewsDaily.</p> <p>But he continued to research lasers at AT&T's Bell Labs and three years after his mode-selector patent, he filed the patent for which he is entering the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He created a laser that used a molecular gas, carbon dioxide, which greatly increased their power output. The first time he tested his carbon dioxide laser, it maxed out his power meter. Thinking that the meter must be broken, he put his hand in the beam. "Which was the worst mistake," he said. He got a severe burn. Bell Labs continued to develop the laser for six months, further increasing its power. Carbon dioxide lasers are now widely used in welding, drilling and laser surgery.</p> <p>Patel now teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles, and runs a private company that sells semiconductor lasers to the U.S. military for protecting planes from missiles.</p>

Lubomyr Romankiw and David Thompson

<p>Lubomyr Romankiw has had a long inventive life, including nearly 50 years at IBM, where he's still an active employee. He and his retired co-worker, David Thompson, are entering the hall of fame for creating the first practical magnetic thin-film storage heads, which enabled smaller, lighter memory storage in computers. At the time of the invention, more than 30 years ago, Romankiw and Thompson's storage heads held 1,000 times more information at 1/100,000 of the price of available devices, Romankiw said.</p> <p>Romankiw has a particular interest in taking his research from theory to market, he told InnovationNewsDaily. "I was always thinking about what my dean of engineering used to tell us in undergraduate school (the University of Alberta in Canada)," he said. His dean told him researchers need to have to have a path from the lab to the manufacturing plant, otherwise the research isn't worth it. While many scientists may disagree, that idea has informed Romankiw's work ever since.</p> <p>Before he started studying electronics, he worked for a Canadian mining company to develop a process for recovering metals from mined ore. But perhaps his first invention was an explosive toy he made as a 10-year-old living in Ukraine during World War II. He would gather dropped machine-gun bullets and pack their gunpowder into straws. He set the straws at the end of a table, lit one end with a match, then enjoyed watching the straws take off like rockets. "Indeed, this was a rocket," he said.</p> <p>Inventing, for him, "is all fun and games," he said. "It's playing."</p>

Gary Starkweather

<p>A <a href="http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/05/16/110516fa_fact_gladwell?currentPage=all">New Yorker story</a> Gary Starkweather pointed InnovationNewsDaily to called him stubborn. "Perseverance is the term I'd apply to it," he said. The story details the opposition he met as a he tried to develop the world's first laser printer as a researcher at Xerox PARC in the 1970s. His invention eventually earned the company billions of dollars and is the reason for his induction into the hall of fame.</p> <p>"If you really want to get a good idea through a system, you need a person to champion it," he told InnovationNewsDaily. That champion usually is the person who had the idea in the first place, he added. The right attitude is, he said, "I care enough about this that I'm not giving up."</p> <p>One of the first things he invented was a copier that could reproduce not only text, but also images. The method, which he came up with in the 1960s, is no longer used. And like Endo, the developer of statins, he enjoyed tinkering and building radios as a child.</p> <p>He's now available for consulting, but mostly tries to enjoy his retirement in DeBary, Fla.</p>

Alejandro Zaffaroni

Alejandro Zaffaroni is entering the hall of fame for his work in developing timed-release drugs and especially for being one of the pioneers of skin patches to deliver medicine. In the 1950s and 1960s, he helped develop the birth control pill at Syntex Corp., <a href="http://www.alexza.com/about/dr-alejandro-zaffaroni">according to his biography</a> on the Web page of his company, Alexza Pharmaceuticals. He founded several biotech companies throughout his life. Alexza Pharmaceuticals didn't return emails and calls from InnovationNewsDaily.

Posthumous honors

The National Inventors Hall of Fame is also inducting three people posthumously this year: Dennis Gabor, for inventing electron holography; Maria Telkes, for inventions that help store solar energy, and Steve Jobs, for "modern computing technology" in general.

5 First Inventions from the 2012 National Hall of Fame Inventors